In April, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. came out of the gate seeming to confirm that the progress he’d made in 2021 was here to stay.
His 154 wRC+ was a stone’s throw from last year’s 166, and he did things to remind us he’s a unique talent — like making mincemeat out of Gerrit Cole.
In May, it’s looked like the pre-breakout struggles might not be out of his system.
Even after an impressive home run on Tuesday, the slugger has hit .240/.360/.347 with just four extra-base hits and an ugly 58.5 percent groundball rate. Those grounders aren’t the be-all and end-all of his struggles — he hit .302/.380/.613 last May despite a 53.8 percent groundball rate — but they are representative of the fact he’s just simply off at the plate right now.
Big picture, it’s clear that Guerrero Jr. will find a way out of this funk. He’s one of the most gifted hitters in the league, and pitchers haven’t suddenly figured him out. Even so, a closer look at his current issues shows that his approach right now needs some serious ironing out.
One of the biggest issues between Vladdy’s 2021 and 2022 is the way he’s been significantly more aggressive at the plate. That’s not an issue by definition, but it is when your swing rate on pitches inside the zone goes up by just 0.8 percent while you swing at 7.3 percent more pitches outside the zone.
When a hitter swings at way more pitches outside the zone, the expected outcome is an uptick in punchouts. Those offerings are harder to make contact with and a decrease in contact usually drives a ballooning strikeout rate.
That hasn’t been what’s happened to Guerrero Jr. His 2022 strikeout rate (16.4%) is almost identical to last year’s (16.3%) because while he’s swinging at worse pitches he’s done a much better job of making contact with them — a pattern that’s been especially pronounced in May.
On the surface this seems like a positive development because Guerrero Jr. is missing fewer pitches. Sometimes missing pitches isn’t the end of the world, though.
Here’s a pitch down and away that Guerrero Jr. swung right through in 2021:
There’s nothing he could’ve done with that slider, and he’s probably glad he missed it — because this is what he did to the next pitch:
What Vladdy’s done lately is put far more of those first pitches in play. This month a far larger percentage of his balls in play have come on pitches outside the zone, and he’s done nothing with those offerings.
It appears that Guerrero Jr. is putting a premium on making contact right now, and it’s often the wrong kind of contact — whether that means rolling over on pitches outside the zone…
… or getting jammed on pitches inside:
This chase-happiness isn’t the sole cause of Guerrero Jr.’s struggles, but it's playing a significant role in his tough month. The first baseman is simply wasting too many at-bats by failing to make pitchers come to him. Although it’s impressive that he’s improved at putting the bat on the ball on difficult pitches, it isn’t improving his production.
Guerrero Jr.’s best course of action is probably to recalibrate his swing decisions to his 2021 equilibrium. Failing that, it would pay dividends to put less of an emphasis on contact for the sake of contact. Swinging and missing is never the best outcome in the moment, but a big cut that finds air probably had a decent chance of driving the ball in the first place — and it might give you another shot at a better pitch to hit.
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